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Friday, November 2, 2007

Stiglitz on Globalization
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Nobelist (and former Clinton advisor) Joseph Stiglitz is bracingly frank about the failings of globalization in this talk to a Google audience. Despite a booming China and an on-the-make India, growth has been slower than expected in much of the rest of the world. Globalization was expected to lead to greater worldwide stablity. What it has resulted in instead has been dozens of financial crises. Globalization was supposed to encourage money to flow from the rich world to the poor one. In fact, money has been flowing in the opposite direction. Globalization was expected to be an equalizer of incomes. As things have played out, though, inequality has increased dramatically not only between countries but within countries. The income of the U.S.'s lower classes, for instance, has actually decreased over the last 30 years. Stiglitz is also more worldly than most professorial types are about the way that special interests warp arrangements to their own advantage. Despite all these admissions, though, Stiglitz still thinks that globalization can be made to work. How? Well, somehow "we" have got to get our incentives straight, for our political classes as well as for our trade-agreement set. I haven't yet found the passage where he names the planet on which such a thing might possibly be made to happen. Forgive me for suspecting that what he really means is, "I believe. I see the shortcomings, yes. But I can't give up my belief." Here's an AlterNet interview with Stiglitz. Stiglitz's books about globalization are buyable here and here. Am I wrong in thinking that part of what "opening world trade up" often means in practice is "giving greater license to the shrewd, the connected, and the powerful to take unscrupulous advantage of the rest of us"? I say this as a most-places / most-times fan of free trade, by the way. It's just that ... Well, how can "free trade" be made to happen at the global level? Who, after all, are we going to find who'll be able to officiate the game in a disengaged, fair-minded way? A Martian? Or perhaps ... Joseph Stiglitz? Don't miss FvBlowhard's recent analysis of lobbying and campaign-contribution money. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 2, 2007 | perma-link | (14) comments

Computer Dis-Improvements
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Enough with the ooh-ing and aah-ing about how quickly computer technology advances. Really: Do massive hard drives, processor speeds, and memories represent anything but technological stunts unless they serve our purposes? So how well have computer makers done in terms of serving human needs? Hal Licino had the wit to go to the trouble of comparing a current Windows machine with a 1986 Mac Plus. A fair fight? Hardly. After all, the Windows machine is -- in technical terms, anyway -- 1000 times faster than the creaky ol' Mac. It was also equipped with 1Gig of RAM vs. the Mac's 4 MB. Yet, yet ... So far as the non-websurfing tasks that one most often uses a computer for (Word and Excel, basically) go, the prehistoric Mac beat the Windows powerhouse more than half the time. The test that really clinched it in the Mac's favor, as far as I'm concerned, is the time it took the computers to boot up. The Mac delivered a usable desktop nearly a minute faster than the Windows machine did. Can anyone say "too many bells and whistles"? How about "flash for the sake of flash"? Or maybe "marketing-department overreach"? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 2, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Karaoke Smackdown
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Champ. The Challenger. Wait! What's that I see? There's another challenger! The world seems to be swarming with inventive and cute teens, some of whom have lips like Scarlett Johansson's. Read about the Back Dorm Boys on Wikipedia. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Blogging Smackdown
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's Clio vs. Roissy (in the comments). At stake: the future of the 21st century male-female thing. Is "game" a necessary survival toolkit for the new hetero male, or a cynical ploy that feeds ego and poisons relations? Clio's own blog is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2007 | perma-link | (39) comments

Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, All our teachers taught us that we live in a democracy, or, perhaps more precisely, in a republic. In either case ultimate sovereignty derives from The People. And (eventually, at least) the Will of The People cannot be denied, because their votes call the shots. Right? Well, as we edge closer to an election year, I would have to say I've got my doubts about all that. Because, the way I see it, it's distinctly possible that we actually live in something more akin to an "auctionocracy" where people who want political influence write checks to purchase it. My guess is that dollar bills donated to campaigns or devoted to lobbying, rather than votes cast for candidates, constitutes the real action in terms of how America is governed and how Americans live. I did a little research on the total dollars donated at the Federal level on Congressional and Presidential elections, as well as those dollars spent on lobbying, at can - and should - check them out here.) I totaled up all the contributions and lobbying expenditures for the years 1998 to 2006 (or the 1998 - 2006 election cycles). I excluded the 2007 numbers because they are still fragmentary. I excluded data on campaign contributions from before the 1998 election cycle because there is no corresponding data on lobbying. A drumroll please...the following are the leading sources of political money in modern America: #1. The finance industry, including commercial and investment banks, savings & loans, private equity firms and insurers (other than health insurers) made $933 million in campaign contributions and spent $2,077 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $2,941 million. #2. Health care providers, including medical professionals, hospitals, nursing homes and the pharmaceutical industry, made $420 million in campaign contributions and spent $2,043 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $2,463 million. #3. Ideological donors, single-issue donors and retirement-focused donors made $1,259 in campaign contributions and spent $848 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $2,107 million. #4. Agribusiness made $229 million in campaign contributions and spent $694 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $923 million. #5. The real estate industry including mortgage bankers made $358 million in campaign contributions and spent $549 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $906 million. #6. Electric utilities made $84 million in campaign contributions and spent $793 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $877 million. #7. Lawyers and lobbyists made $670 million in campaign contributions and spent $188 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $857 million. #8. The defense industry made $75 million in campaign contributions and spent $716 million on lobbying, giving them a grand total of $791 million. #9. The computer/Internet industries gave $124 million in campaign contributions and spent $625 million lobbying, giving them a grand total of $749 million. #10. The education industry gave $93 million in campaign contributions and spent... posted by Friedrich at November 1, 2007 | perma-link | (22) comments

Cameras for Travel
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm drafting this November 1st, having survived yet another birthday. (I need to write my -- extremely liberal -- congressman regarding what happens when I subtract my birth year from the current year. For some reason that result keeps getting larger. That seems unfair. Clearly a Republican plot: heartless bastards.) I'm also on the road. In the Bay Area right now and heading to points south and a possible Michael Blowhard sighting. And today my sister is off to Bhutan, of all places. Nancy (my sister, not my wife) packs two cameras when she goes to exotic places. One is a pocket-sized digital and the other is a digital single lens reflex (SLR) type digital. I own a couple of film SLRs -- Nikon Fs that I bought 45-ish years ago while stationed in the Far East. Plus four or five extra lenses. Not to mention Dad's Nikon F, which I inherited. None of these cameras has been used in about 30 years. Nor are they likely to be used again (for one thing, they probably need reconditioning). The travel pix I post here from time to time are taken with a Nikon S5 pocket digital. It does a surprisingly good job, though telephoto shots are iffy even though the camera seems to try to stabilize the images while in that mode. On my recent trip to Italy, a tour group member was a woman who paints murals in houses. Apparently Tuscan scenes are a popular subject, so she thought it was high time to see the place in person rather than rely only on reference photos from books and magazines. She shelled out something like $1,400 for a Canon with a huge zoom lens to take her own reference photos. I took a picture of her and her husband with it, and the viewfinder, etc. were mighty impressive. I'm sure my photography would improve if I had such gear. Still, I'd hate to have it stolen: Lord knows one can't discretely hide heavy artillery of that sort. Which is why my little pocket Nikon is my weapon of choice on trips. But still ... Camera packin' readers: How do you deal with the digital camera convenience versus quality issue when you take a serious trip? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 1, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Speaking of rowdy and uninhibited ladies, as I recently was ... The blog Lust Bites features writing by some of today's most daring female eroticists, a smashing visual design, and a general tone of crisp and merry irreverence. Recently: Polly Frost celebrates being a "genre slut"; Madelyne Ellis praises the vamp archetype; and Janine Ashbless confesses to having a thing for men's beards. Oh, I do have a soft spot for risk-taking, wild women ... Hmm, well, maybe "soft spot" isn't quite the right way to put it. NSFW, as if you really needed telling. * A little Degas, a little Ashcan, a little East Village, a lot of talent and skill ... Fun. (NSFW, but classily so.) * Linda Thom connects the dots between immigration-driven population growth and California's recurring wilderness-fire crises. * The best camcorders of 2007. * What, if anything, can be done to save Western New York State? * "Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man's mental or moral economy," writes Theodore Dalrymple, bless his heart. (Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.) * Steve Sailer traces the evolution of pop music over the last few decades. * Culture-bargain: Before he turned to making straightfaced fantasy epics, the New Zealand director Peter Jackson was a wonderfully demented low-budget comic-horror specialist. At Amazon, you can currently buy his brilliant gross-out scare picture "Dead Alive" for a mere $5.49. * MBlowhard Rewind: I rhapsodized about the tres charmante French actress Sophie Marceau. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

DVD Journal: The Notorious Bettie Page
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'd been semi-dreading Mary Harron's biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page." Although I hadn't seen either of her previous films -- "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho" -- I'd read about them, and I knew a little about Harron's background and interests too. Given what I'd picked up, I expected the Bettie Page film to be theoretical, intellectual, post-modern, and "daring" in predictable leftie-feminist, if (yawn) Sex Positive, ways. In other words: While the Bettie Page subject matter certainly had its juicy appeal, I was certain that the film would be a dreary exercise in PC edginess. But I do love Gretchen Mol, who stars as Bettie Page ... The price of a used DVD kept creeping down ... When it hit six bucks, I couldn't resist any longer. The One-Click button was pounced on, and The Wife and I settled in to watch the film. Was I ever surprised. Although the film is nothing if not post-modern in style, its spirit is flat-out appreciative. I'm sure a determined intellectual could roll up his sleeves and tease a lot of mallarkey about "power" and "gender" out from the film, but those words don't indicate how the film actually plays and feels. It's a genuinely sweet, touching, and sexy picture: open to contradictions, unresolved, and full of charm and humor while never surrendering to naivete. Hey, a few films that I was reminded of as I watched "The Notorious Bettie Page": "Fallen Champ," Barbara Kopple's documentary about the boxer Mike Tyson. Kopple may be the most PBS person on the face of the planet. But she's also talented, and in this project at least was able to let go of her usual agenda and give over to her subject matter. The result is a complex and moving look at Tyson, one that's not at all marred by feminist limitations. "Auto Focus," Paul Schrader's movie about the TV actor Bob Crane. Like Harron's film, "Auto Focus" has an off-off-Broadway, quotes-around-everything, po-mo quality. (I wrote about the Schrader picture here.) But Schrader took a jaunty and disengaged tone. There was nothing about Bob Crane that he could respect, or that he even seemed to find interesting. By contrast, Harron (with co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and Gretchen Mol) takes on Bettie Page with real commitment. "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," Francis Girard's very unusual biopic of the Canadian pianist, which features a fractured, multifaceted point of view. While it's far more determinedly experimental than "Bettie Page," it's full of a similar kind of humor and wonder. "Ed Wood," Tim Burton's biopic about the legendarily untalented director of such works as "Glen or Glenda" and "Plan Nine from Outer Space." In his picture, Burton moves through irony and camp to a state of sincere admiration. In "Bettie Page" Mary Harron moves through po-mo into something genuinely loving too. One quick caveat: "Bettie Page" doesn't have a lot of dramatic drive. The Wife -- a dramatic-drive junkie -- liked the... posted by Michael at October 31, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More Taubes
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The L.A Times interviews Gary ("Maybe It's All a Big Fat Lie") Taubes. I'm in the middle of Taubes' new book about how the low-fat / high-carb doctrine became America's semi-official diet despite a near-total lack of supporting evidence, and I'm finding it very impressive -- one of the most methodical and devastating jobs of whistle-blowing that I've ever read. Taubes does supply a lot more information than this lover of short books really needs to know. (In other words, Taubes' book is very long, and I gotta admit that I'm doing a fair amount of skimming.) But he also supplies a wide-ranging and toughminded look at the ways that science, politics, and journalism -- the "we know better than you do," Expertise class -- can wind up working against the public interest. Reminds me of the way that the modernist- government- NEA - academic, intellectual-arty class has blighted our cultural life, come to think of it, all the while telling us that they're doing it for our good. There's been a lot of that kind of thing around in recent decades, hasn't there? Semi-related: The National Animal Interest Alliance takes a look at some of the ways that feel-good and do-good laws can make life worse. (Link thanks to Terrierman.) Wal-Mart is now the nation's #1 retailer of organic food. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 30, 2007 | perma-link | (9) comments

Wisdom from the Grumpy Old Bookman
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since I'm still floundering around in a flu-ish, cold-ish fog, I'm going to let one of my betters do the speaking in this posting. Michael Allen, aka the Grumpy Old Bookman, has written a book called "The Truth About Writing" that's a weatherbeaten, beady-eyed, plain-spoken wonder. Do you want to know what the writing game and the publishing game really consist of? You can't do better than read Allen's book. I know of few books that speak as directly and truthfully about the arts-life generally, come to think of it. Some nice passages: Most professors of English literature, and most of the highbrow literary critics of this world, would have us believe that there is, metaphorically speaking, a hierarchical tower of fiction. This tower is something like a block of flats. At the top, in the exculsive pethouse, is a small amount of "literature," i.e. Great Novels. In the basement is a large heap of trash ... The truth, however, is that there is not a top-to-bottom hierarchy of fiction, with great books at the glorious summit and "trash" or "pulp" at the unspeakably vulgar bottom. If we must think of the range of available fiction in visual terms, it is best to think of a broad spectrum of books, which runs horizontally. You might care to imagine a street in whcih every buiding is a bookshop containing a particular kind of fiction ... Consider the vested interest of all those who teach the subject of English literature. They are all doing pretty nicely, thank you, preaching the 1947 party line, and they're not too keen on having any revisionists question it ... The facts are really very simple. A book eitherworks in terms of producing the intended emotion in a target reader, or it does not ... Personally I do not believe that a book can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense -- it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience ... If there are no great novels, there is no hierarchy of fiction, with the good stuff at the top and the trash at the bottom. Indeed, only the briefest of considerations will demonstrate that the trash is every bit as effective in generating emotion as the so-called good stuff. Usually, in fact, a lot better ... Books which continue to be enjoyed for long periods of time tend to become known as "classics." This is a convenient shorthad term, but again, you should not be misled into assuming that it implies some absolute quality ... As for striving to achieve classic status yourself -- forget it. Your first task, when writing a novel, is to make it work for your intended audience today. Let the future take care of itself ... A work of art is .. a work which has been created through the exercise of skill, rather than by accident. The most common use of the term is in relation... posted by Michael at October 30, 2007 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bon-Ton Sexy Babes
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sometimes my daughter complains when I write about sexy stuff -- like many younger people, including myself years ago, she seems to feel that one's own parents live on a higher plane than the rest of the world. For that reason, and in part because I blog using my own name, and mostly because Michael is the 2B go-to guy on sexy topics, I usually write about other things. There are exceptions, of course. Here I wrote about pin-up artists. And here I wondered why a noticeable share of gals posing for girlie calendars and covers of magazines dealing with guy-hobbies (hot rods, trucks, motor cycles, etc.) looked like they had IQs on the south side of 90. But most things, including sexy pictures of women, are aligned on a continuum; there can be found other species of models than the vapid variety. Speaking of models, fashion photographer Helmut Newton would use some of the models from his fashion shoots in nude, arty-yet-semi-erotic poses. Haute-couture fashion models seldom look stupid. Those models, along with Newton's lighting and other technical skills (not to mention a slightly surrealistic aesthetic disposition) rendered his nude photos art, rather than porn, to many observers. Newton did much of this work in the 1980s and 90s. Another, now nearly unknown, photographer who did astonishing work was Alfred Cheney Johnston whose career apogee was the 1920s when he was the main photographer for Florenz Ziegfeld's famed Ziegfeld Follies. Needless to say, when it came gorgeous women with a theatrical bent, Ziegfeld was able to select the cream of that crop. Johnston took many hundreds of photos of them and other similarly beautiful women. Some of these pictures have been collected in this book (see cover below). Johnston placed his subjects in "arty" poses, not the flamboyant ones used by Newton. Usually the women were partly clothed -- sometimes with nothing but a scarf draped over crossed legs. Even though many photos showed plenty of flesh, they seem curiously prim by today's loose standards. Moreover, I, at least, find Johnston's women more alluring than Newton's. Why is this so? It's so because Johnston usually made the women seem classy whether or not they actually were. These women look dignified, not trashy and stupid. Partly this was Johnston's posing and use of props. But mostly it was because Ziegfeld selected classy-looking women in the first place. This is evident in some photos in the book where the women weren't from Ziegfeld; although most of his subjects -- Ziegfeld or not -- exuded quiet beauty, a few were ordinary or even less. Another thing. Johnston's women are seen as being both beautiful and remote. Almost untouchably perfect. Forbidden fruit, if you will. In my opinion, this makes them far more attractive than the "democratized" "sexy" photos that are today's coin of the realm. Am I wrong? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 29, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Copycat Car Styling
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Maybe they knuckled under to Management. That's the best spin I can put on the latest example of "copycat" automobile styling. Yes, they regard themselves as Designers, and the word Design is usually used to label their corporate administrative pigeon-hole. From public relations and advertising blurbs as well as books and magazine pieces, these Designers are supposed to be creative geniuses set apart from run-of-the-mill creative geniuses because they have gasoline flowing through their veins. Truth is, they're in the fashion trade. Back in the 1940s, General Motors had them in the Styling Department -- the label "Design" came later in a public image makeover. The nature of fashion is roughly as follows: (1) someone does something innovative, (2) the rest of the herd rushes in to produce close variations on the new theme, and (3) this continues until another innovation is produced. To what extent this is the fault of designers/stylists or Management, I can't say. But I suspect Management is more responsible because dice are being rolled for large amounts of money, and with large stakes the natural tendency is to play things safe. So much for speculation: now for some reality. Gallery 1949 Oldsmobile "fastback" style An automobile style popular from the mid-1930s till the early 1950s was the "fastback," illustrated above. This was related to attempts to make cars aerodynamic, though much such "streamlining" was cosmetic. Fastbacks represent a type of semi-false streamlining because tapered rear-ends require quite long bodies to be effective -- bodies much longer than that of the Oldsmobile. A better aerodynamic solution for conventional length cars is the "Kamm back," where the rear of the car tapers slightly and then is, in effect, chopped off vertically. Otherwise, fastbacks tend to be impractical because the sloping rear reduces potential luggage space. This is one reason why the style disappeared for decades. Honda Accord - 2008 This is a brand-new body for Honda's Accord line which is battling with the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima for the prize of being the top-selling sedan in the USA. Perhaps I'm delusional, but the new Accord looks suspiciously like ... BMW 5 Series This BMW 5 Series body has been in production for several years and therefore must have been known to Honda stylists. The 5 Series is a detoxed version of the BMW flagship 7 Series. The 2002 7 Series had controversial styling -- especially its awkward-looking rear where the trunk had a peculiar, tacked-on appearance. BMW styling supremo Chris Bangle took an immense amount of heat from the automotive press and BMW fans, but Management stood by him and he's still in charge of styling. When the 5 Series was restyled a few years later it was given the odd trunk design theme, though in milder, more refined form. The theory behind this look is shown next. Style analysis -- faux-fastbacks The style makes sense only when seen from the side, as in the two photos above and the... posted by Donald at October 28, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments